Remembering one of hip-hop's most influential figures...

February 10th marks ten years since the death of beloved hip-hop producer J Dilla. He passed away just days after his 32nd birthday following complications from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood condition.

Known for his production and remix work for major acts including A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu, the Motown and James Brown-influenced producer and cratedigger born James Yancey initially started out as one-half of Detroit duo 1st Down alongside rapper Phat Kat.

His smooth, pastel-shaded sonics - heard on A Tribe Called Quest’s last two albums, plus early remixes of hits such as Busta Rhymes’ ‘Woo-Hah! Got You All In Check’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘Got Til It’s Gone’ - inevitably saw Dilla’s new crew Slum Village (comprising Detroit rappers T3 and Baatin and Dilla on the beats) hailed as Tribe’s natural heirs, a comparison with which he was never really all that comfortable.

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But yet rather than kick back and relax in a signature production style comfort zone, Dilla would frequently flip his sound over the course of his decade-plus career. ‘Fuck The Police’ – an early Jay Dee solo shot from 2001 – hit everyone for six, its tougher, stripped down drums and spiky anti-cop polemics standing in stark contrast to the subtle, laidback beats of a few years prior.

And so as the more traditional sample-heavy sound of his initial productions gave way to a cleaner, more minimalist thump (‘B.B.E.’ from ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’; ‘Dedication 2004’ from Phat Kat’s ‘The Undeniable’ LP), Dilla’s music forecast a broader shift in hip-hop production styles that would arrive later in the decade, moving away from the well-established breakbeat-and-loop structure and towards the genre’s embrace of digitalism and certain forms of electronica. Sure, the evolution may have pointed to Dilla’s maverick streak, and the move didn’t always sit well with legions of traditionally-minded rap purists, but it perhaps wasn’t all that surprising given his native Detroit’s status as the de facto home turf of techno.

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The posthumous plaudits may often go way over the top (Exhibit A: those ‘J-Dilla Changed My Life’ tees – such overly-generous accolades were once the sole preserve of 2Pac fans), and it’s probably fair to say that, on balance, Dilla never truly crafted a front-to-back full-length classic (Jaylib’s ‘Champion Sound’ LP – the awesome 2003 team-up with Madlib – doesn’t really count on the strength of it being a collaboration). But a quick skim through his body of work reveals a colossal contribution not only to hip-hop, but to R&B, neo-soul and electronica too.

A sober consideration of his career suggests a mightily impressive catalogue scored with missed opportunities, due mainly to the bullshit record company politics of the era. Just as his buzz was building, his own solo debut and that of Detroit duo Frank-N-Dank (whom J was producing) were stalled by label MCA demanding a more radio-friendly sound. Later, the stack of beat tapes that trickled out following his death reinforce the feeling that his excellent ideas were only half-realised during his life.

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Still, his solo albums, particularly ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’, ‘Ruff Draft’ and ‘Donuts’, as well as his work with Slum Village and Madlib, boast some consistently excellent music. The Jaylib project in particular – which saw Dilla perform his own raps on Madlib’s skewed avant garde sonics, and Madlib returning the favour over Dilla’s immaculate yet still seemingly hard-as-hell rhythms – is a remarkable piece of post-Rawkus, post-Fondle ‘Em outre-underground hip-hop which displayed the pair’s stunning chemistry, and remains a landmark in noughties subterranean rap.

Meanwhile, his outside production resume features some hip-hop’s finest moments of the ‘90s and early 2000s: De La Soul’s ‘Stakes Is High’ (the hardest, most uncompromising commentary on the state of the rap game ever, as relevant today as it was 20 years ago); The Pharcyde’s ‘Runnin’’ (a perfectly melancholic marriage of Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa’s ‘Saudade Vem Correndo’ and Run-DMC’s ‘Rock Box’), and Common’s ‘The Light’ (a fine addition to the love rap canon).

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But while he may have made his name producing for major stars, he was also a pivotal figure in Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene, helping lay down the foundations for a network of artists including Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat and Elzhi. Kanye and Pharrell have cited his early influence, while the stark, eerie metronome drums of his posthumous work have had a far-reaching impact on producers such as Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke. Even today, rappers still tap his sounds: Nas’s ‘The Season’ (2014) found the Queensbridge legend rhyming over the ‘Gobstopper’ beat from ‘Donuts’, while those filtered bass and offbeat handclaps – Dilla staples - have become familiar tropes of hip-hop’s sound in the 2010s.

James ‘J Dilla’ Yancey, February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006.

Words: Hugh Leask

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